The Creative Brain On Exercise
For more than thirty years, Haruki Murakami has dazzled the world with his beautifully crafted words, most often in the form of novels and short stories. But his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008) opens a rare window into his life and process, revealing an obsession with running and how it fuels his creative process.
An excerpt from a 2004 interview with Murakami in The Paris Review brings home the connection between physical strength and creating extraordinary work:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit, and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long–six months to a year–requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
Murakami is guided by what the great scholars, writers, thinkers, and creators of ancient Greece knew yet so many modern-day creators have abandoned.
The physical state of our bodies can either serve or subvert the quest to create genius. We all know this intuitively. But with rare exceptions, because life seems to value output over the humanity of the process and the ability to sustain genius, attention to health, fitness, and exercise almost always take a back seat.That’s tragic. Choosing art over health rather than art fueled by health kills you faster; it also makes the process so much more miserable and leads to poorer, slower, less innovative, and shallower creative output.
As Dr. John Ratey noted in his seminal work Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008), exercise isn’t just about physical health and appearance. It also has a profound effect on your brain chemistry, physiology, and neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to literally rewire itself). It affects not only your ability to think, create, and solve, but your mood and ability to lean into uncertainty, risk, judgment, and anxiety in a substantial, measurable way, even though until very recently it’s been consistently cast out as the therapeutic bastard child in lists of commonly accepted treatments for anxiety and depression.
In 2004 the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a review of treatments for generalized anxiety disorder that noted thirteen pharmaceuticals, each with a laundry list of side effects, but nothing about exercise. In response, NEJM published a letter by renowned cardiologists Richard Milani and Carl Lavie, who had written more than seventy papers on the effect of exercise on the heart, eleven of them focused on anxiety. That letter criticizes the original article for omitting exercise, which, the writers note, “has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety. This supports exercise training as an additional method to reduce chronic anxiety.”
Ratey details many data points on the connection between exercise and mind-set; among them the following:
- A 2004 study led by Joshua Broman-Fulks of the University of Southern Mississippi that showed students who walked at 50 percent of their maximum heart rates or ran on treadmills at 60 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rates reduced their sensitivity to anxiety, and that though rigorous exercise worked better. “Only the high intensity group felt less afraid of the physical symptoms of anxiety, and the distinction started to show up after just the second exercise session.”
- A 2006 Dutch study of 19,288 twins and their families that demonstrated that those who exercised were “less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, and also more socially outgoing.”
- A 1999 Finnish study of 3,403 people that revealed that those who exercised two to three times a week “experience significantly less depression, anger, stress, and ‘cynical distrust.'”
Ratey points to a number of proven chemical pathways, along with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities, as the basis for these changes, arguing that exercise changes the expression of fear and anxiety, as well as the way the brain processes them from the inside out.
Studies now prove that aerobic exercise both increases the size of the prefrontal cortex and facilitates interaction between it and the amygdala. This is vitally important to creators because the prefrontal cortex, as we discussed earlier, is the part of the brain that helps tamp down the amygdala’s fear and anxiety signals.
For artists, entrepreneurs, and any other driven creators, exercise is a powerful tool in the quest to help transform the persistent uncertainty, fear, and anxiety that accompanies the quest to create from a source of suffering into something less toxic, then potentially even into fuel.
This is not to suggest that anyone suffering from a generalized or trait (that is, long-term) anxiety disorder avoid professional help and self-treat with exercise alone. People who suffer from anxiety should not hesitate to seek out the guidance of a qualified mental health-care professional. The point is to apply the lessons from a growing body of research on the therapeutic effect of exercise on anxiety, mood, and fear to the often sustained low-level anxiety that rides organically along with the uncertainty of creation. Anyone involved in a creative endeavor should tap exercise as a potent elixir to help transform the uncomfortable sensation of anxiety from a source of pain and paralysis into something not only manageable but harnessable.
Exercise, it turns out, especially at higher levels of intensity, is an incredibly potent tool in the quest to train in the arts of the fear alchemist.
Still, a large number of artists and entrepreneurs resist exercise as a key element in their ability to do what they most want to do–make cool stuff that speaks to a lot of people. In the case of artists, I often wonder if that resistance is born of a cultural chasm that many artists grew up with, where jocks were jocks, artists were artists, hackers were hackers, and never the twain would meet. For more sedentary solo creators, historical assumptions about who exercises and who doesn’t can impose some very real limits on a behavior that would be very beneficial on so many levels. On the entrepreneur side, the excuse I’ve heard (and used myself) over and over is “I’m launching a damn company and my hair’s on fire. I don’t have time to work out.” The sad truth is that if we make the time to exercise, it makes us so much more productive and leads to such improved creativity, cognitive function, and mood that the time we need for doing it will open up and then some–making us so much happier and better at the art of creation, to boot.
Excerpted from Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) 2011 by Jonathan Fields.
SNL at its best. Pretty hard act to follow for Mark – wonder how he continued……
IDEO: Big Innovation Lives Right on the Edge of Ridiculous Ideas
Brendan Boyle: This is a quote from Stewart Brown, who is founder of the National Institute for Play, “Most people think that the opposite of play is work (especially in the corporate world) but the opposite is boredom or even depression.” To me, play is what you’re passionate about doing. You want to do it because it’s enjoyable and you want to keep doing it because it brings you joy. But play is a ton of effort.
Brendan: People tend to think a couple things. That work is work and play is frivolous and it’s only for kids. Or when they do try and incorporate it, they treat it separate from the work and schedule it in almost like it was recess. The core difference we’re trying to incorporate at IDEO is that play is part of the innovation process not just something you do when you roll out the ping pong tables at a specific time.
Joe: Try to encourage open-ended behavior. It’s not about goals, it’s about pushing the boundaries and discovering something. We model behaviors, experiment, and arrive at limitations and possibilities through direct contact with the world. At IDEO, we’re often trying to design around a narrative — it’s less about the object and more about the experience, the story of that object — so we’re looking for social and environmental cues as to what that experience is or could be. Through playing with different scenarios, through prototyping different possibilities, we get to that narrative.
Brendan: We were recently working on an iPhone app for Sesame Street and were trying to think of how Elmo should dance. So, we cut out a giant iPhone from foam core and filmed different people dancing inside the window. It was a very playful way to prototype and, more importantly, we learned quickly which dance moves wouldn’t work. Our goal with prototyping is to build something quickly and learn and then make it better on the next round. What are your daily schedules like?
Joe: Our culture is really one of being comfortable thinking on your feet and not worrying too much about failing in front of others. That’s important. The only place you’ll see any rules at IDEO is in a brainstorming session, and they’re rules like “Defer Judgment” and “Go For Quantity”. It’s about making a space that’s safe for taking risks. We try to encourage flexing your creative muscles and interacting, rather than being the smartest designer in the room.
Brendan: Start-ups are like running a gauntlet. The advice I say is to step back and think a little about the culture at the outset because it’s at the beginning that it gets formed. Plan for success but also plan for what the culture can be as well. If play is important to you, and I hope it is if you’re planning on being an innovative company, it will start with the founders. You can look at Google certainly as an example. Joe: I guess I’d say, don’t hold on to any one idea too tightly. Be ready to adapt. When we design a product for the first time, we don’t know how people will really use it, and I think the same can be said of businesses. Also, I think space is one of the fundamental tools that can encourage and sustain a playful and collaborative culture.
The IDEO Toy Lab.
Joe: Absolutely! We have a very collaborative space on purpose by having a small personal space and lots of shared space. Big tables in the room encourage people to stand around and co-create.
Brendan: I think you’re always going to get skeptics. Sometimes they’re just too much so the best thing is to avoid them or fire them. In Tom Kelley’s book The 10 Faces of Innovation, he talks about the one guy in the meeting that anoints himself the role of playing devil’s advocate in a meeting. For some reason, he then gets to shoot-down everyone’s ideas. Tom makes a great point around, “What if this person had to play a different role? What if they had to play the ‘experimenter’ role?” Joe: Those skeptics are in every walk of life. You can certainly combat it with the experimenter role. Show people it’s possible, don’t just tell them. It’s always been the seemingly improbable, boundary-pushing ideas that have created this world around us and none of that would have been possible if they’d listened to all the people who said it never would have worked. We’d still be living in caves if we relied on the skeptics.
A great example of “embedded added value” from New Zealand to the world.
Engineering veteran named Entrepreneur of the Year
By Esther Goh, Idealog
After spending 35 years building a world-beating business, 67-year-old Bill Buckley is “still in his overalls” and loving every moment on the shop floor, as evidenced by his win at the Ernst & Young New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year awards last week. Bil BuckleyThe founder and sole owner of BSL Buckley Systems Ltd and Buckley Systems International was named Entrepreneur of the Year after winning the master category jointly with Linda Jenkinson of LesConcierges a month ago. Buckley will now go on to represent New Zealand at the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year Awards 2011 in Monte Carlo next June. The awards celebrate entrepreneurs through regional, national and global awards programmes in more than 140 cities in 50 countries. “This year’s finalists are inspirational in the way they have managed the downturn and for the passion with which they have pursued opportunities,” said awards director Jon Hooper. “Entrepreneurs operate in the same economic environment as everyone else and yet they continue to innovate and prosper. They create new business models and they create jobs. There’s something to be learned in that and something to celebrate.” According to Buckley, it’s no good doing what just anybody else can do. “You have to go after the stuff that’s too complicated for the average engineer so you can be ‘Johnny on the spot’ when the demand hits.” BSL manufactures and supplies precision electromagnets to more than 80 percent of the world market for use with such technologies as computer chips, flat-screen televisions, whiteware, medical systems and particle accelerators. The company employs more than 260 staff in New Zealand and has offices in Auckland and Boston. Buckley said he had not considered moving the business, which has won two Trade NZ Exporter of the Year awards and in two American Chamber Of Commerce Exporter of the Year awards, overseas. “Why change it if it’s not broke?” he said. “I have always believed that if someone says it can’t be done, I’ll find a way to prove them wrong.” He said there were only around 10 companies in the world producing silicon chip “capital”, most of which are brands that operate under the radar such as Varian, Nissin or Axcelis. Their clients, on the other hand, are household names including IBM, Intel, Sony and NEC. “Without Buckley Systems there would be no magnetism to the mix,” he said. According to Buckley, between 80 to 90 percent of all electromagnets and ion beam hardware supplied by the middle-tier providers to the big name brands come from BSL. Everything it manufactures is exported to clients in the US, Britain, Europe, Japan and other Asian destinations. Buckley said the company’s market share was fairly secure due to its reputation and quality product, and the fact that its specialist knowledge would make it extremely difficult for anyone else to replicate what it was doing. “For anyone to be serious opposition to me would cost them a lot of money. What I can do for $1 million would cost them $10 million,” Buckley said. The Ernst and Young New Zealand Entrepreneur of the Year category winners, announced last month, were: * Dr Doug Cleverly, Argenta (Products) * Simon Gault, The Nourish Group and Sous Chef (Services) * Sean Simpson, LanzaTech (Technology) * Victoria Ransom, Wildfire (Young Entrepreneur) * Anthony Leighs, Leighs Construction Ltd (Commendation) * Bill Buckley, BSL Buckley Systems Ltd and Linda Jenkinson, LesConcierges Inc (joint winners of Master Entrepreneur)
Method consider their concepts and prototypes as “conversation starters” internally with their teams, and externally with advocates (their super fans).
by Etienne Fang
September 20, 2011
Another spray-and-pray meeting: You’re sitting in a large conference room, listening to a presenter move through line after line of numbers, charts and graphs. He’s on slide four of 37 and clearly using the “spray and pray” approach — cramming as much information he can on the slides and praying someone in the room will see something relevant. You look around the room and wonder — is anyone absorbing what he’s saying? For many of us, we find ourselves in these types of meetings every day, and this is just the beginning. We have sales and profit numbers, forecasted business trends, projections, investment cases, public filings and thick strategy decks. Beyond that, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and countless other networks give us direct access from potential and current customers. We certainly do not lack information today, but the irony is that we feel less informed. We work in a culture that worships numbers and rightly so — facts and figures hold weight. But, quoting Andrew Lang, people use “statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts — for support rather than for illumination.” Volume drowns out the substance: The challenge is not keeping your head above the flood of data, but to learn how to separate information from facts and how to inspire others to act. We know exactly how it feels to be drowning in the deluge of data. We work on the front lines of large corporations and are tasked to make high-level decisions, lead teams and juggle multiple priorities. Drawing on our experiences, we learned a fundamental lesson:
Questions are arguably the most powerful tool to shape decisions. The solution we developed sounds deceptively simple: Smarter questions lead to better answers. However, learning to ask the right questions at the right time will expose you to new information, point you to connections between seemingly unrelated facts and open new avenues of discussion with your colleagues. We came up with seven basic questions — not complex analytical questions we heard in b-school, but a product of our combined business experience working at IBM, American Express and Microsoft.
Data rehab: At the end of the day, there are a select few who understand the power of data, know the questions to ask, connect it to their larger business strategy and use it to engage customers and achieve revenue objectives. We have seen innovations wasted, opportunities missed and customers lost because most people don’t know how to create and deliver insights. To get started, it’s critical to take a step away from it all and ask, “What is the one vital piece of information you need to move forward?” In other words, what problem are you solving and what is the critical data point that focuses the decision that will help you drive growth, introduce new products or figure out how to keep the lights on? This is your “Essential Question” and can help you move from data to strategy.
This question and others can serve as a catalyst for new thinking — your life preservers in the vast data pool of valuable information mixed in with meaningless gobbledygook. So as you examine your strategy for 2011 and beyond: What’s your essential question?
Organization charts are important. But too many of them lose focus on who the real boss is. Hint, it’s not the CEO.
A chapter in the book, TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE, explains the true school company culture of Starbucks and how they look at organizational charts. In reading it, you’ll learn who the REAL BOSS is.
Radically Simplify Your Organizational Chart
When companies grow, their organizational charts also grow. Business growth spawns newly created and highly reorganized departments, which transform a once-simple organizational chart into a labyrinth of boxes connected via a series of straight and dashed lines. Starbucks is no exception.
Whenever Starbucks undergoes a major corporate reorganization and redraws its organizational structure, which usually happens once every 18 months, executive management does two things. First, Starbucks execs remind corporate employees that while their proverbial cheese has been moved, employees must not hem and haw about the changes. Instead, Starbucks employees should scurry about and sniff around to adjust to the new organizational alignment.
The second thing Starbucks execs do is remind employees that no matter what organizational and departmental management changes take place, there is only one boss that truly matters—the customer.
If you wanted to illustrate what this would look like in terms of your organizational chart, you would see a straight line going from the customer to each and every employee, no matter his or her place in the corporate hierarchy:
To make it simple, Starbucks hammers home the point by dusting off and distributing this radically streamlined, vintage organizational chart from deep inside the company’s cultural chambers:
It’s natural that with growth comes more complexity in organizational structures—specifically, that there are more people in the middle, overseeing these employees and reporting to those supervisors. What Starbucks realizes is that nowhere, in most organizational charts, is a box for the customer.
At Starbucks, no matter where you are in the org chart, there is a direct line connecting you to the customer, which bypasses all other lines of the company hierarchy.
The Starbucks culture believes there is only one organizational chart that truly matters to a customer-first business, and that one has every employee symbolically reporting to the real boss—the customer.
1. Is your company’s organizational chart simple and easy for everyone to understand? Does it make sense to people who work in the company?
2. Where is the customer in your company’s organizational chart?